How Obama Sees This Moment

Even amid a raging pandemic, President Trump remains focused on spreading conspiracy theories about the election he lost, abetted by conservative news media outlets and disinformation campaigns on social media. Most Republicans seem resigned to ceding their party to the president, declining to demand that he accept reality and step down. (Worth noting: Not a single Republican lawmaker agreed to appear on any of the Sunday talk shows this past weekend.)

Complaints about partisan gridlock aren’t anything new: For more than a decade, pundits have griped about the inability of lawmakers to compromise and accomplish big things. But now, those intractable divisions have spread to the entire country, leaving us unable to form consensus on even the most basic of facts, like Mr. Biden’s victory or the need to wear masks to fight a deadly virus.

That’s the argument Mr. Obama is making in interviews surrounding the release on Tuesday of the first volume of his new memoir, “The Promised Land.”

With the election over, the former president is pulling the fire alarm on our democracy. His comments to The Atlantic, NPR and CBS News are striking given that they are coming from a president who was known — and often critiqued — for his levelheaded, “no-drama Obama” style in office. Consider what he told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic:

“America is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold. There haven’t been enough of them around for long enough to say for certain that it’s going to work.”

Mr. Obama centers much of his concern on “truth decay” — the decline of agreement on central facts and a blurring of lines between fact and opinion in civic life. The term comes from a report published by the RAND Corporation in 2018 that was included on Mr. Obama’s summer reading list that same year. He told The Atlantic:

“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”

Mr. Obama doesn’t see his successor as the cause of rising populism, a movement he traces to the 2008 election when Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, energized her party’s base. Though he couldn’t resist throwing some shade at Mr. Trump:

“I’m not surprised that somebody like Trump could get traction in our political life. He’s a symptom as much as an accelerant. But if we were going to have a right-wing populist in this country, I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.”

Rather, he blames the media environment, the decline of local news and the refusal of social media companies to take responsibility for conspiracy theories posted on their platforms. There is no longer a “common baseline of fact and a common story,” he said.

Mr. Obama even seemed to question whether he could win the presidency if he ran today.

“Even as late as 2008, typically when I went into a small town, there’s a small-town newspaper, and the owner or editor is a conservative guy with a crew cut, maybe, and a bow tie, and he’s been a Republican for years. He doesn’t have a lot of patience for tax-and-spend liberals, but he’ll take a meeting with me, and he’ll write an editorial that says, ‘He’s a liberal Chicago lawyer, but he seems like a decent enough guy, had some good ideas’; and the local TV station will cover me straight. But you go into those communities today and the newspapers are gone. If Fox News isn’t on every television in every barbershop and VFW hall, then it might be a Sinclair-owned station, and the presuppositions that exist there, about who I am and what I believe, are so fundamentally different, have changed so much, that it’s difficult to break through.”

Mr. Biden won the White House by promising a return to political norms, a vow that might be impossible to fulfill given the kinds of changes Mr. Obama denounced. Whether Mr. Biden, a longtime creature of old Washington, can navigate our new political and media reality will probably be a central test of his presidency.